Britain is heading for a homelessness crisis. Here's how we stop it

A rough sleeper outside London's House of Fraser. Image: Getty.

If welfare reform continues on its current track, the UK is headed towards a homelessness crisis in the next decade. This stark warning from the Fabian Society, which mirrors Shelter’s own experience helping families on the brink of homelessness, comes at a time when public concern about housing has reached its highest level for 40 years

For Us All by the Fabian Society provides a comprehensive and long overdue analysis of the current trajectory of the UK’s welfare state. The research, supported by Shelter and Legal & General, is a vitally important kick-start to the discussions we need to have about the challenges of 2020 and beyond, and what some of the solutions might be. 

As the leading housing and homelessness charity in the country, Shelter’s focus is inevitably on how well the welfare state helps people to avoid homelessness and navigate the country’s failing housing market. We know that after six years of shrinking support the prospects are bleak for low income private renters. 

Rents are rising and increasingly families are finding that having a job doesn’t mean they can keep are roof over their head – the number of working households claiming help from housing benefit has increased by a third over the past five years. Yet 63 per cent of landlords say they prefer not to or don’t let to tenants on housing benefit. The loss of a private tenancy is currently the single leading cause of homelessness.

From this challenging start, the report paints a picture set to worsen dramatically by 2020. It warns that the current provision of support will be severely lacking, after years of cuts and freezes leave housing unaffordable for low income private renters in most areas. 

A safety net so out of step with even modest housing costs will be shameful and let down millions of us. The new government – and opposition - have an opportunity to heed this warning and engage in a long overdue conversation about what a sustainable welfare safety net could look like after austerity. Because if we don’t take action now, current policies could tip many more renters into homelessness. 

We fully welcome the report’s recommendation that support for housing costs should reflect actual rising rents. First and foremost, the safety net should ensure that people are protected from homelessness, and the first test of any new welfare system will be can it meet essential needs. Currently, we are in danger of failing this most basic test. 


With a new Prime Minister and fresh challenges ahead, now is the time to ask what the social security system should aim to achieve and how. The report makes clear that the challenges facing the welfare state are not the same as those which Beveridge confronted 70 years ago – and neither are the tools to fix them. Employment, society, technology and more have all changed beyond recognition. 

The report prompts all of us to consider our rights and responsibilities and considers drawing on a far broader range of safety net measures, including means-tested and contributory benefits alongside personal accounts. At Shelter we will explore in more detail what this means for housing. 

Genuine welfare reform will never appeal to governments seeking a quick or easy win, but if successful it promises a vital prize: a sustainable and affordable safety net that enables people to flourish through good times and ill, supporting them when they need it, and being supported by them when they don’t.  

Campbell Robb is chief executive of Shelter. This article previously appearedo n our sister site, the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.